I hung around the cottage, watching the players materialize from out of thin air. It was kind of cool and something I hadn't done a lot of recently. I made a mental note to do this more often. And then there she was, an invisible presence, sensed rather than seen. A slight shimmer in the air gave her away, she was newly graduated and her inexperience showed. The shimmering grew stronger and she materialised before me, I whistled my appreciation.
"Why thank you kind sir."
"Are you waiting for someone?"
"Yes, but now you've arrived, so I'm not waiting any more."
She laughed; sometimes the sheer corniness of the obvious pick-up lines wins 'em over. "Perhaps I have, but I may not be what you want at all."
All this time other players were appearing and moving away. I looked around, feigning bewilderment.
"Is this your first time?"
"Yes." well it was my first time in this particular persona, so it wasn't a complete lie. "I'd better introduce myself, after that awful pick-up line it's the least I can do." I bowed formally, "I'm Mark, sometimes my friends call me Markie" I held my breath; would I get away with it? My penchant for playing personae with names based on David and Leigh Eddings' characters was well known, so this time I'd used a male character from their latest non-fantasy novel.
"Nice to meet you Mark, I'm Paula"
'... the Witch.' I said to myself.
"Would you like to see some more of the place?"
"That would be cool."
Paula made a complicated pass in the air in front of her and our surroundings faded to be replaced by darkness. I smiled to myself; it was kind of cute that she had forgotten that she had magical sight and that I hadn't. To her credit she realised her mistake almost straight away.
"Ooops, sorry." The blackness was banished and I gasped, this place never ceased to amaze me and seeing it suddenly revealed like that was quite a surprise. We were standing at one end of an enormous cavern. The ceiling far above us glittered, as the light was refracted from thousands of jewels embedded in it.
"Wow! This is fantastic! Say, how did we get here so fast? How did you do that?"
Paula laughed, "Magic."
"Gosh, you're a magic user. Is it hard?"
"Took me three attempts and thousands of hours, but I think it's going to be worth it." She frowned, "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Look we're not supposed to talk in game-terms. It's not a rule or anything, but it's considered good manners not to."
I nodded, "Thanks, this is all so new it's kind of embarrassing to get sucked in so easily."
She smiled, "Try to immerse yourself, this can be as real as you want it to be. The main thing though," she looked conspiratorial and whispered, "Is to have fun and lots of it!"
I smiled at her obvious enthusiasm and we walked towards the far end of the cavern. As we reached the halfway mark, it became apparent that we could go no further. A bottomless chasm bisected the cavern; formless mists rose from the chasm and a low moaning seemed to emanate from it also.
"It looks like this is the end of the line." I said.
Paula smiled at me, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" then she wrinkled her brow in concentration and muttered, "it should be around here somewhere." Her face cleared and she smiled in triumph. "Got it!" A rod with a rusty star on one end appeared in her hand and she waved it. I noticed that she had arranged for me to be in position to watch both her and the chasm at the same time. Full marks for artistry. Someone had been at the bridge-building routines and I watched in unsimulated awe as the crystal bridge manifested itself.
"Wow!" I said. Paula was also looking flabbergasted too, but she managed to hide it quite well, when she became aware that I was watching her again. With studied nonchalance she stepped onto the bridge. I coughed.
"Are you sure it's safe?"
"Oh yes it's quite..." she realised that she was still holding the rod with the rusty star. She recovered well, with only the smallest of blushes, as she returned the rod to its previous resting place. Carrying the rod over the crystal bridge was the sort of mistake one was only supposed to make once. "... safe."
I followed her onto the bridge. Pleased that I could be the tourist without having to playact for once, I examined the fine structure of the bridge; I could see that Richard had been playing again. The entire structure was constructed of thin filaments of diamond arranged as endlessly tessellated tetrahedra, had this been a real bridge, for all it's delicate, filigree nature, it would have stood loads of a hundred tons or more. I jumped up and down and the bridge rang and tinkled.
"Come on there's lots more for you to see."
She was a very good guide, she resisted the temptation to show off with her newly acquired Witch-hood and most of her magic was done with straightforward competence that was all the more impressive for it. She was also very conscientious; whenever she 'borrowed' something she always made sure to put it back and if she had to take it from someone else she always returned it and added a few gold coins for the hire also. This girl was one to watch.
Though we didn't broadcast it, one of us would always try out the newly promoted Witches and Wizards - we use the term Wiz as a gender-neutral term - to see if they would make the grade as it were. You see the promotion was automatic, but just because someone had worked at something didn't mean that he, or she, was the sort of person that we wanted running around with fairly extensive powers to cause havoc. Too many MUDs degenerated because the high-level magic users were allowed to cause mayhem unchecked and we weren't about to let it happen to our corner of the MPRPG universe. Anyway as the oldest of the MUDs we had a reputation to uphold; hence the final exam.
So far she was passing with flying colours; she was almost too good to be true. Though I had already checked her account status I initiated another check, just in case and the search showed nothing untoward; all my little agents returned empty-handed. Perhaps it was time for the second stage of my little test. A quick review of my previous responses confirmed to me that I hadn't said much beyond 'Wow!' for some time so I was fairly safe in assigning the Mark persona command stream to my little AI widget that I'd developed specifically for this purpose. It was an extension of Eliza but with a far greater set of premises - even so it was only safe for short periods of time, and extended conversation would pretty soon expose its limitations. So far, all science fiction apart, only humans were capable of passing the Turing test, and not even all of them.
The next bit taxed even my intellect; oh all right I'd probably be better if I had the fabled female ability to multi-task. I reattached my own command processor to the command stream of the killer persona that I had set up earlier. I'd left him sleeping behind a rock just up ahead. Feeling slightly disconnected as I walked into the location and saw Paula and Mark standing looking in awe at the waterfall. I picked up a loose rock and threw it at Mark.
I'd misjudged the AI, it may have been stupid as far as conversation was concerned, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with its reflexes. Shit! I'd forgotten to reset the skill set to match that of the persona I'd been using.
"What the..." Paula watched dumbfounded as Mark literally blazed toward me. Hurriedly I tried to rectify the damage. I triggered a 'Normal Service Will Be Resumed' sky sign - this was sufficiently unusual that Paula ignored me for a few seconds. With this respite I was able to reduce the skill settings on the AI and then switch command streams so that I was, once more, in control of Mark; this left the AI controlling the killer whom I'd called Ug after his caveman qualities. I switched off the sign. Paula eyed the killer with disquiet.
"What just happened?"
Paula turned to me, "I was going to ask you that."
I pretended to think for a bit, actually it wasn't pretence - it was just I was trying to think of something convincing to say to keep her off-guard. Ug came to my rescue metaphorically at least; he started to advance towards us. Without thinking I put myself between Paula and the killer.
"Excuse me." She gently shouldered me aside and pointed her finger at the killer. A bolt of lightning flashed from her fingertip and suddenly the killer was no more. Richard had been 'improving' things again, so my start of fright was not an act. Paula was almost as surprised, but she hid it well. My screw up had altered the parameters of the test, but she had still done pretty well all things considered and so it was time to see how she would do when presented with the ultimate temptation - in game terms that is.
"I'm sorry about that, it's been a strange few minutes altogether. Most people don't attack you for no reason, especially since you're not carrying anything valuable."
Unwittingly she had given me a perfect out for Ug's apparently unprovoked attack and wonderful opportunity to move to the next phase. "Ummm. Well I found this before you arrived, there was a hell of a fight going on just before you appeared and one of the combatants dropped something, maybe that was him and he wanted it back?." I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a plain gold ring and gave it to her. Paula held it up to her eye and examined it closely. We had borrowed extensively from Tolkien and this was a 'One Ring' it enabled the wearer to act as a game developer (or God in game terms), there were only a few in circulation for obvious reasons and those players trusted with them would usually guard them with their lives, at least those were the rumours that circulated about them; the reality was somewhat different. In the commonly accepted scenario however accidents can happen and my story was not completely implausible. I waited for her to discover what the ring was.
"Oh my God!"
The penny had dropped; actually I was quite impressed, some people had failed this part of the test because they had failed to recognise the temptation. Paula looked at me in horror.
"Do you know what this is?"
"Well it's a ring. It didn't look particularly valuable but it was quite pretty so I thought I'd pick it up and see if I could sell it later."
"Don't you know your Tolkien?" she paused and then started to chant, "Ash nazg durbatul˚k, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatul˚k agh burzum-ishi krimpatul."
I looked purposefully blank, but gave her full marks for her accent.
"One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them."
I let realisation dawn. "Oh! Wow! So if you wear it you can do anything? That's so cool. Can I try it?"
"I don't think that's a good idea, you could do untold damage possibly even cause a reset." Paula shuddered; resets were unsettling to say the least.
"Well you seem to know what you are doing; I'm sure you could use it safely."
Paula looked at me coldly. "And what would you suggest?"
"I don't know, you must have some ideas; how about finding out how things are put together?" I shrugged my shoulders to indicate a complete failure of imagination.
Paula thought about this for a while; then she came to a decision. "I'm sorry Mark, but I can't do that sort of thing; I think we should give it back."
"How do we do that?"
"Well I've left messages before and had replies; but I think if I tell them about a 'One Ring' on the loose, we're likely to get a visit - prepare to be impressed."
"What are you talking about."
She grinned at me. "You'll see."
She held her arms aloft and started to pray. Okay this is one of the many things about fantasy role playing games that offends the religious extremists, but I don't see the problem; in my universe I have godlike powers so if you want to talk to me urgently then you pray, it's simple really. My back channel lit up with the substance of Paula's message:
"Dear Developer, a newbie has stumbled over a plain gold ring. I may be mistaken but it feels like a 'One Ring'. Please reply soonest as I don't want to have the responsibility any longer than necessary. Thanks Paula."
She had passed. So it was time to lower the boom.
"Oh, I think you can handle it Paula."
"I said I think you can handle the responsibility."
She stared at me open-mouthed.
I made a purposely, unimpressive pass with my right hand. The One Ring in her hand vibrated and tingled in her hand. She looked down in surprise.
"Unless you can feel the tingle they don't work, or at least not permanently. That one has just been keyed to your persona, so you can use it now."
She continued the open-mouthed stare. I smiled at her, "If you don't start talking to me soon, I may have to reconsider my previously good opinion of you."
"This was the 'Final Test'?" There were always rumours, of course, but we tried to ensure that they were our rumours; that way we were able to keep people off their guard.
"I'm sorry about the subterfuge and I'm sorry about the anticlimax of the visit; next time I'll arrange the whole clap of thunder, puff of purple smoke that sort of thing."
She was looking shell-shocked. "You mean this was all a set-up?"
"Yeah, sorry. Richard and I like to check out the newly promoted Wizzes. It's like the old oral examination for doctors."
I looked embarrassed. "I'd rather not talk about that."
She just stared.
I sighed, "I'm not that good at multi-tasking; in fact I hate controlling multiple personae, it's very distracting, seeing things from more than one point of view simultaneously. So I use a little widget I developed to handle the newbie persona while I control the killer. The trouble was I forgot to reset the AI so it was insanely fast acting - as you saw."
She grinned broadly and giggled, "the Gods have feet of clay after all."
"Ah shut up and put on your ring."
"Like I said it's too much responsibility. What if I lose it?"
"If you'd just wear it you'd see that it's not possible to lose it, but lets assume that an activated One Ring was somehow on the loose - possibly because the persona that it was activated for didn't put it on - if someone else found it and tried to wear it... let's just say the results would be permanently catastrophic, for them."
"Which finger do I wear it on?"
Women! I never had this sort of trouble with the Wizards, with exaggerated patience I replied, "Whichever one you find most comfortable; it will fit any of them."
With some trepidation she placed the ring on the third finger of her left hand. An unusual choice, but I made no comment and watched her confusion as the ring melted from view.
"Ever read 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever'?"
She glared at me; it was surprising how quickly someone could move from awe to annoyance.
"You really enjoy teasing the newbie Witch don't you?"
"It has its moments; anyhow now you're properly attired, we can go to the Control Room. Just a moment though." I was getting tired of Mark and switched him for my standard developer guise. Paula watched as, from her perspective, Mark was replaced by RT. There wasn't that much difference in looks as I have never felt the need to disguise my real face - I may be famous online - but not that many people know what I actually look like. But I did have an aura; I held out my hand and took Paula's, she gasped as I did so. This wasn't unexpected, as she would have felt the One Ring tingle only stronger. What was unexpected was that I felt the same thing myself. I made a note to ask Richard about it.
"Come with me." I cast about for the current location of the Control Room and then teleported in. Richard and I are insanely cautious about the security of the Control Room. He and I are the only ones that can enter in any of our persona; Wizzes must have been vetted by us - and given a One Ring of their own - even then they must be accompanied by one of us on their initial visit.
"Wow!" It was my turn to render her incoherent. I'm in it so frequently that it has ceased to register, but the Control Room is quite impressive. Virtual real estate is free, so the room was enormous; actually it was about 10,000 locations all joined together in a 100 x 100 grid with the visibility and sightlines arranged so that one could see from one side to the other. Most of it was just storage space; game objects were arranged in untidy heaps, while large neon signs floated in mid-air above each heap. Since I'd chose to materialise on the wrong side of the room from where I wanted to be, we had a bit of a trek to make to get to the other side.
"What is all this?"
"Window dressing mostly."